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Forest Service imposes new food storage rules in Boundary Waters

Some paddlers are upset over requirements and possible penalties. The Forest Service vows only warnings will be issued in the first year.

By John Myers

May 06, 2024 at 5:45 PM

The U.S. Forest Service has imposed tough new rules on how campers must handle their food storage when in the Boundary Waters, with steep fines and even jail time possible for violators.
Contributed / Wisconsin DNR

DULUTH — The U.S. Forest Service is cracking down on how people store their food while camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, requiring very specific food hanging requirements or certified bear-proof lockers and threatening to impose stiff fines and even jail time on violators.

The rules now demand what had been longstanding advice from the Forest Service on keeping bears away from campers' food.

The new rules, in effect from March 1 to Nov. 30 each year, require across the entire BWCAW that “except while being prepared, consumed, or under on-site visual observance, all food, food containers, scented items (such as soap, lip balm, toothpaste) and refuse shall be suspended at least 12 feet above the surface of the ground and not less than 6 feet horizontally from the trunk of a tree, or stored in an Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee certified bear resistant container.”


Link to Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee Bear Resistant Products:

PDF of IGBC Bear Resistant Products provided at the end of this article.


The U.S. Forest Service is now mandating, and not just suggesting, how campers store their food packs on canoe trips into the BWCAW.
Contributed / U.S. Forest Service

Similar rules have been imposed seasonally before in specific areas where bears had been an issue, but never before across the entire wilderness for entire seasons.

Officials said the rule is as much to protect bears as it is for humans.

“Once a bear is rewarded with human food or garbage, it is likely to become habituated and continue the behavior, which could ultimately lead to the bear being dispatched,’’ Cheron Ferland, Superior National Forest biologist, said in Monday’s announcement.

The rule states the order officially took effect on April 19, “and shall remain in effect until April 19th, 2026, or until rescinded, whichever occurs first.”

The rule notes that “any violation of this prohibition is punishable as a Class B misdemeanor by a fine of not more than $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for organizations, or by imprisonment for not more than six months, or both.”

The new rules were unveiled Friday to outfitters and other businesses who work with the Superior National Forest on BWCAW issues, and were exchanged widely on social media over the weekend, but were not made available to the general public until late Monday.

Peter Marshall, communications director for the group Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said the Forest Service has the right intention to prevent human/bear encounters but that “it’s the draconian nature of the order that is wrongheaded.”

Marshall called the rule “impractical” and notes that many seasoned veterans of BWCAW travel argue that hanging food is not the most effective way to deter bears. Marshall said keeping food sealed in plastic bags and 200 feet from tents often is enough to deter bears in the wilderness.

“Six months in jail, a $5,000 fine, or both, and a misdemeanor on your record?" Marshall said. "For what? Not for drunk driving, which carries a similar penalty, but for not using a certified bear container, or for hanging it 11 rather than 12 feet off the ground. This is extreme. Friends of the Boundary Waters, and many other groups, have worked hard to make the wilderness more inviting to diverse groups of people, to open it to people who never went to the Boundary Waters.

"Having this impractical order, that carries the very real threat of jail time or hefty fines, is a major setback," Marshall said.

The Forest Service on Monday vowed to issue only warnings for violations of the new rule during the first season.

“Our goal initially is to highlight the importance of all of us doing our due diligence to keep wildlife from becoming habituated," the agency noted in unveiling the rule. "Except for gross violations or repeated violations, we intend to issue warnings for the first year of the order. Fortunately, many BWCAW visitors are already practicing good food storage techniques. The concept isn’t new, we’re just approaching it as a season-long prevention effort, rather than reacting to incidents as they occur.”

The U.S. Forest Service says it will issue only warnings for first-year violations of new food storage rules in the BWCAW.
Steve Kuchera / 2020 file / Duluth Media Group

Forest Service rangers have long warned BWCAW campers to make sure their food, cooking equipment, garbage — and anything that might smell like food to a bear — is secured on a rope high in the sky and far enough from trees to prevent bees from accessing it. Bears may also find anything with a strong or sweet odor attractive, such as toothpaste, lip balm, scented personal products, sunscreen and clothing with food odor. A bear can smell food wrappers inside a tent, forest officials note. A clean campsite is much less likely to catch the attention of bears in the area. Bears are excellent swimmers, so precautions must be taken on island sites as well.

Bear-proof lockers or containers have become more common in recent years, hardened containers that can be moved or even tossed around by bears, but they generally can't gain access and give up trying. The National Park Service says nearly 500 products from more than 100 manufacturers are on the International Grizzly Bear Commission's list of bear-resistant products. They generally range from $50 to $150.

Forest officials note that the blue barrels sometimes now used by BWCAW campers are not on the certified list and thus are not approved for BWCAW use.

Because 2023 was a banner year for natural bear forage across the Northland, it’s expected more bear sows will have more bear cubs, and those bear groups will be out searching for food this spring and all summer.

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